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On March 30, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed multiple orders issued by a district court in favor of an assignee mortgage holder (plaintiff), concluding that a borrower (defendant) was liable for interest at a default rate of 24 percent per year. After the defendant fell behind on his mortgage payments, the debt ultimately was assigned to the plaintiff, who initiated a foreclosure action. The plaintiff alleged a default date of February 1, 2008, and contended that the defendant was liable for interest at the 24 percent per year default rate. The district court granted the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the motion was supported by record evidence and that defendant’s affirmative defenses were meritless. The defendant’s motion for reconsideration was denied. A court-appointed Referee issued a report calculating the amount due on the note and mortgage, which the defendant appealed on several grounds, arguing, among other things, that (i) the plaintiff is a “debt collection agency” under New York City Administrative Code, and is precluded from taking action without being licensed; (ii) the 24 percent default interest rate applied by the Referee violates New York’s civil usury stature (which caps interest rates at 16 percent); and (iii) “the Referee erred by applying the default interest rate from the date of default rather than from the date of acceleration.”
On appeal, the 2nd Circuit concluded that, regardless of whether the plaintiff allegedly failed to obtain a debt collection agency license, the plaintiff was not necessarily barred from foreclosing on the mortgage and collecting the debt at issue. The appellate court also determined that New York’s civil usury statute “‘do[es] not apply to defaulted obligations . . . where the terms of the mortgage and note impose a rate of interest in excess of the statutory maximum only after default or maturity.” The appellate court further held that the mortgage note and agreement clearly stated that a lender is “entitled to interest at the [d]efault [r]ate . . . from the time of said default. . . .”
On March 31, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit partially affirmed a district court’s dismissal of federal and state law claims against a loan servicer, concluding that while a 1099-A form sent to the plaintiff was not an attempt to collect a debt under the FDCPA, the district court erred in determining that the claim was time-barred. The plaintiff filed suit alleging violations of the FDCPA, the Florida Consumer Collection Practices Act, the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, and the Florida Mortgage Brokerage and Lending Laws (MBBL). After the district court dismissed her initial and amended complaints, the plaintiff appealed, arguing, among other things, that the district court erred when it (i) determined that the defendant’s mailing of IRS form 1099-A was not an attempt to collect a debt under the FDCPA; (ii) dismissed her FDCPA claim as time-barred because the statute of limitations had expired; (iii) found that the defendant was not involved in the original loan transaction and therefore could not be liable for damages under the MBLL; and (iv) declined “to exercise supplemental jurisdiction” over the other state law claims after dismissing the FDCPA claims with prejudice.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit agreed that the form 1099-A “was not a communication in connection with debt collection” because it did “not demand payment, state that it was an attempt to collect a debt, or state to whom or how to make a payment of the debt.” The appellate court also agreed that the district court properly dismissed the plaintiff’s MBLL claim because she failed to plead that the defendant made her mortgage loan as required under the MBLL. The district court’s decision to dismiss the remainder of the state-law claims was also affirmed. However, the 11th Circuit disagreed with whether the plaintiff’s FDCPA claim was time-barred, concluding that while the one-year statute of limitations under the FDCPA begins to run on the date the communication is mailed, the appellate court has “never held that, when the date of mailing is in dispute and a plaintiff alleges receipt of a letter on a certain date, a court could presume a mailing date based on the date of receipt and the parties’ addresses.” (Emphasis in the original.) According to the 11th Circuit, “the district court erred in dismissing [the plaintiff’s] FDCPA claims as untimely when her complaint did not allege a date of mailing of the February mortgage statement, and it was not apparent from the face of her complaint whether her claim was time-barred.”
On March 30, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned previous precedent set in Graziano v. Harrison, holding that there is no written dispute requirement under Section 1692g(a)(3) of the FDCPA. In affirming a district court’s judgment on the pleadings in favor of a debt collector (defendant), the en banc panel joined several other appellate courts in concluding that disputes under Section 1692g(a)(3) can be made orally, as well as in writing. According to the opinion, the plaintiff filed suit against the defendant alleging violations of Section 1692g(a)(3) after she received a letter in which she was provided multiple options for contacting the defendant, instead of an explicit requirement that any dispute be done in writing. The district court granted the defendant’s motion for judgment on the pleadings.
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit considered the question of whether a collection letter “must require all disputes to be in writing, or whether [Section] 1692g(a)(3) permits oral disputes.” According to the appellate court, while other sections of 1692g specifically include the word “written,” Section 1692g(a)(3) “refers only to ‘disputes,’ without specifying oral or written.” The en banc court reversed its prior holding in Graziano v. Harrison, in which a panel of the 3rd Circuit held that Section 1692g(a)(3) “must be read to require that a dispute, to be effective, must be in writing.” It determined that after “reading the statutory text with fresh eyes”—as well as considering “the past three decades of Supreme Court statutory-interpretation caselaw”—it now believes Section 1692g(a)(3) allows for oral disputes. According to the appellate court, because Congress did not write Section 1692g(a)(3) to include a written dispute requirement, it must rely on the language Congress chose. “By expressing our view today, we put an end to a circuit split and restore national uniformity to the meaning of §1692g,” the 3rd Circuit wrote.
On March 20, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit partially affirmed a district court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of one of two defendants on plaintiff’s Electronic Funds Transfer Act (EFTA) claims, holding that the defendant satisfied its EFTA obligations by providing the plaintiff a confirmation email containing the material terms and conditions authorizing a recurring monthly charge to the plaintiff’s debit card. However, the appellate court vacated the district court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act (CUTPA) claims against the defendants for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and remanded for further proceedings. The plaintiff contended that one of the defendants—a discount club operator—failed to provide him with a written copy of the authorized electronic fund transfer after he joined the defendant’s fee-based monthly discount club. The plaintiff filed a putative class action lawsuit against the defendant club operator, as well as the retailer from whom he purchased a video game online, alleging, among other things, that the defendant violated the EFTA, and that both defendants engaged in “unfair or deceptive trade practices in violation of CUTPA.” The district could granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on both claims.
The opinion discusses the 2nd Circuit’s holding from the plaintiff’s first appeal, in which the appellate court previously held “that the district court improperly rested its decision on evidence outside the scope of [the plaintiff’s] complaint,” with respect to the claim that the defendant failed to provide “‘a copy of such authorization’” to the plaintiff, as required by the EFTA. In addressing the plaintiff’s second appeal, the 2nd Circuit considered the plaintiff’s argument that the defendant failed to satisfy the EFTA’s requirements because it did not provide him with a “duplicate or facsimile of the Enrollment Page on which he authorized recurring payments.” The appellate court determined that: (i) the EFTA does not require the defendant to provide the plaintiff “with a duplicate of the webpage on which he provided authorization for recurring fund transfers”; and (ii) the defendant’s confirmation email to the plaintiff was sufficient to satisfy its EFTA obligations. The appellate court emphasized that, despite the parties’ “dueling dictionary definitions” of “copy” and “authorization,” the “EFTA’s stated purpose of consumer protection would be served whether the term ‘copy of such authorization’ is read to mean a duplicate or a summary of material terms.” The appellate court also highlighted the CFPB’s Official Interpretation of Regulation E, which states that a person “‘that obtains the [payment] authorization must provide a copy of the terms of the authorization to the consumer either electronically or in paper form.’ 12 C.F.R. Pt. 205, supp. I, §10(b), cmt. 5 (emphasis added).”
On March 20, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit partially reversed a district court’s dismissal of a Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) action, concluding that a company’s disclosures contained “extraneous information” in violation of the FCRA’s standalone disclosure requirement. The plaintiff filed a putative class action lawsuit against his former employer (defendant) after his employment—which was contingent on passing a background check—was ultimately terminated based on the results of his credit report. According to the plaintiff, the defendant violated two sections of the FCRA: (i) that the disclosure form was not clear and conspicuous and was encumbered by extraneous information; and (ii) that the defendant failed to notify him in the pre-adverse action notice that he could discuss the consumer report directly with the defendant prior to his termination. The district court dismissed the allegations, concluding that the disclosure met the FCRA’s disclosure requirements because it was not overshadowed by extraneous information, and “that the FCRA does not require that pre-adverse action notices inform an employee how to contact and discuss a consumer report directly with the employer.”
On appeal, the 9th Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling on whether the signed disclosure form contained extraneous information, concluding that because the disclosure form also included information about plaintiff’s rights to obtain and inspect information gathered by the consumer reporting agency about the plaintiff, it went beyond the FCRA’s standalone disclosure requirement. Noting that the FRCA requires a standalone disclosure but does not define the term “disclosure,” the 9th Circuit stated that a company may “briefly describe what a ‘consumer report’ entails, how it will be ‘obtained,’ and for which type of ‘employment purposes’ it may be used.” Finding that the clear and conspicuous standard was established in a case decided after the district court had dismissed plaintiff’s case, the court remanded the case to the district court to determine whether the defendant’s disclosure form satisfied the clear and conspicuous standard. However, the appellate court affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s other claim, agreeing with the district court that the FCRA only requires employers to provide “a description of the consumer’s right to dispute with a consumer reporting agency the completeness or accuracy of any item of information contained in the consumer’s file at the consumer reporting agency.”
On March 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit partially reversed a district court’s dismissal of a lawsuit against several defendants for alleged violations of the FDCPA, the FCRA, and the TCPA, holding that the plaintiff’s third amended complaint was not filled with “shotgun pleadings.” The matter revolves around several statutory and common-law claims arising from the defendants’ allegedly-unlawful debt collection attempts, which were dismissed multiple times by the district court as “shotgun pleadings.” In her third amended complaint—which alleged 10 causes of action—the plaintiff contended, among other things, that the defendants failed to respond to letters she sent to dispute the alleged debt and failed to notify credit reporting agencies (CRA) of the dispute. The plaintiff also alleged that certain defendants called her cell phone multiple times using an automatic telephone dialing system. The district court entered final judgment in favor of all the defendants, minus the CRA defendant, stating, among other things, that the plaintiff continued to “‘lump the defendants together. . .and provide generic and general factual allegations as if they applied to all defendants.’”
On appeal, the 11th Circuit concluded that the district court erred in dismissing six of the 10 counts as shotgun pleadings. “While not at all times a model of clarity, [the third amended complaint] is reasonably concise, alleges concrete actions and omissions undertaken by specific defendants, and clarifies which defendants are responsible for those alleged acts or omissions,” the appellate court wrote. However, the appellate court agreed that the district court correctly dismissed two counts for failing to state a claim related to claims concerning one of the defendant’s alleged attempts to collect delinquent tax payments owed to the IRS. According to the appellate court, since “tax obligations do not arise from business dealings or other consumer transactions they are not ‘debts’ under the FDCPA.’”
On March 20, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued an opinion ordering that—“on the Court’s own motion”—it will conduct an en banc hearing on whether the CFPB’s single-director leadership structure is constitutional. The order vacates the appellate court’s March 3 opinion (covered by InfoBytes here), in which it previously determined that there was no constitutional issue with allowing the Bureau director to only be fired for cause. According to the now-vacated opinion, the majority concluded that the claim that the Bureau’s structure is unconstitutional “find[s] no support. . .in constitutional text or in Supreme Court decisions.” The 5th Circuit’s prior decision came the same day the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Seila Law LLV v. CFPB on the same issue.
On March 13, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a putative class action filed by two consumers (plaintiffs) against a real estate brokerage group (real estate defendant) and a title company (title defendant), (collectively defendants), alleging a kickback scheme in violation of RESPA. The plaintiffs bought a house in 2008 with the help of a real estate agent affiliated with the real estate defendant. The real estate agent told the plaintiffs that the title defendant would provide settlement services, after which the plaintiffs filed an acknowledgment that they understood they could use the title company of their choice for their closing, and that they were not first-time homebuyers. The plaintiffs indicated their approval to use the settlement company selected by the real estate agent. Five years later, the plaintiffs filed suit, claiming that the real estate agent’s referral to the title defendant violated RESPA. The consumers, as lead class members, alleged that a marketing agreement between the defendants provided for payments by the title defendant to the real estate defendant for settlement services referrals. The plaintiffs claimed that the illegal kickback arrangement denied class members of ‘“impartial and fair competition between settlement service[s] providers in violation of RESPA.’”
The district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgement, holding that the plaintiffs lacked Article III standing to file suit because they were not overcharged in the settlement of their real estate transaction and did not otherwise show an injury-in-fact. In addition, the court determined that the claim was time-barred under RESPA’s one-year statute of limitations.
On appeal, the 4th Circuit agreed with the district court that the plaintiffs lacked standing, noting that “a statutory violation is not necessarily synonymous with an intangible harm that constitutes injury-in-fact.” The appellate court pointed out that the plaintiffs did not claim to have been overcharged for settlement services, and indeed, the plaintiffs agreed that the settlement service fees were reasonable. The appellate court also rejected the plaintiffs’ assertion that they suffered a concrete injury due to the lack of competition between settlement service providers.
On March 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision that a debt collector (defendant) did not violate the FDCPA by mentioning that interest may accrue on an unpaid debt in a collection letter. In this case, the plaintiff alleged that the defendant violated the FDCPA’s prohibition on false, deceptive, or misleading representations in connection with the collection of a debt when it sent him a letter that included line items detailing the amount owed, separate line items that showed interest and fees as $0, and a disclosure that stated “[i]n the event there is interest or other charges accruing on your account, the amount due may be greater than the amount shown above after the date of this notice.” The plaintiff contended that the defendant was not allowed to collect interest on debts placed by the original creditor and that the original agreement between the plaintiff and the creditor “‘does not allow’ for interest to accrue or for other charges to be added.” The district court granted summary judgment for the defendant, stating that the letter accurately conveyed what was possible under the Texas Finance Code—that interest could accrue—and was therefore not false, deceptive, or misleading.
On appeal, the 5th Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling, holding that “[t]he challenged statement in the letter is not false, deceptive or misleading because it merely expresses a common-sense truism about borrowing—if interest is accruing on a debt, then the amount due may go up.” [Emphasis in the original.] According to the appellate court, the “simple statement would have been clear even to an unsophisticated borrower. . . .” Moreover, the appellate court concluded that it did not matter whether the plaintiff’s agreement with the creditor prohibited interest or other charges “because the language at issue does not state that [the defendant or the creditor] would—or even could—collect interest.”
Maryland Court of Appeals reverses trial court approval of settlement for interfering with CPD action
On March 3, the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed a trial court’s approval of a proposed settlement in a class action based on fraudulently induced assignments of annuity payments. The class members were recipients of structured settlement annuities from lead paint exposure claims who responded to ads by a structured settlement factoring company (company). The class members then transferred the rights to their settlement annuity contracts to the company, which paid the class members lump sums for the rights at a discount. The class filed a lawsuit against the company in 2016, alleging that it had engaged in fraud in procuring the annuity contract transfers. Around the same time, the Consumer Protection Division of the Maryland AG’s Office (CPD) had filed suit against the company alleging violations of the State Consumer Protection Act. Several months after both actions were filed, the CFPB filed a similar suit against the company based on the same alleged misconduct. All three actions sought similar kids of relief with respect to the same individuals, though the bases for seeking relief and the nature and amount of relief sought differed among the actions.
The class and the company proceeded towards a negotiated settlement, to which the trial court signed a proposed final order, certifying the class and approving the settlement, despite CPD’s opposition to both issues. Following the court’s approval, the company moved for summary judgment in its case against the CPD, which the court granted because it held CPD’s claim for restitution for the same individuals was barred by res judicata; CPD’s claim for injunctive relief and civil penalties is still currently awaiting trial.
Following an appeal, the Court of Appeals granted the company’s petition to consider whether “class members [may] lawfully release and assign to others their right to receive money or property sought for their benefit by [CPD] or [CFPB] through those agencies’ separate enforcement actions” under state and federal consumer protection laws, respectively.
The Court of Appeals held that the lower court erred in approving the settlement, stating that consumers “have no authority, through a private settlement, whether or not approved by a court, to preclude CPD from pursuing its own remedies against those who violate . . . [Maryland’s] Consumer Protection Act, including a general request for disgorgement/restitution.” In particular, the Court of Appeals held that the parties cannot preclude CPD from pursuing the remedies of disgorgement and restitution, as that would directly contravene CPD’s statutory authority to sanction the company for wrongful conduct. For this reason, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court’s approval of the settlement must be reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings.
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